Thor’s Shield, the shield volcano after which all the rest are named, has been cross-stitched with pylons, in this highly-industrialized landscape off the beaten tourist path. That is “nature” in Iceland, and yet look at the ancient stone bird in the foreground. The old country is here, too, but not as a metaphor and not as a transfer of energy into modern forms.
Skaldbreið and Pylons from Uxahryggir
These are the old forms, continuous with forms yet unborn. I am waiting for the writers of Iceland to be the guides that the writers of the sagas were once, who gave us a completely new take on the world, an alternative to East or West. It’s not my place to say whether Iceland’s writers should walk down a path to the yarn-telling of crime literature or not (although most are), but it should give pause that Gunnar Gunnarsson ‘s The Black Cliffs was the first crime novel in Iceland, and it did not shy away from ambiguity, irony, contemporary themes or the deep, deep past in which they are embedded, just as the fallen angel-bird above is embedded in this mountain pass equally with Thor’s Shield or the power line from contentious dams to an American aluminum plant. In other words, the past is with us. It is not possible to forget it, only to silence it, and, thereby, to end the present.
In November, when sunrise and sunset colours continue in unbroken unfolding light from dawn, near 10 a.m., and dusk near 2 or 3 p.m., it comes so quickly that you can see it open and close through the spectrum, as if you are inside a film, a really, really wide-angle 4-D film.
Here is a fraction of a second of its wonder over the volcano in early November, as I walked through flaming heather and pink snow at þingvellir. I shot the image with two much sky to illustrate how unsettling it can be. One feels at times that one can fall right off the Earth and drown in air.
Whether you find power in a single wave breaking out of the sea of the sun…
… or, turning around, in lines of thought, humble beneath the ancient forces of ice and gravity …
… or in a glacier setting to sea from the Jökulsárlón in the last hour of light …
… may you find the mountain where you are home.
Thor’s Shield, from Skogarkot in Thingvallasveit
And may you burn like a birch tree in the cold.
Happy New Year. Thank you for all of your inspiration!
Myth is not a literal device. Thor’s Shield is a volcano in Iceland, in Middle Earth. It is rimmed with cinder cones. What follows is wit: poets competing with kings, using words alone. It’s smith-work, just as sword-forging is: what is svart is black, what smarts, hits. There are sparks. The words are all one word. The shield is a shield. That’s the wit of it.
Knowing this was the business of kings.
Some farms in Iceland are in the most marginal patches of grass in the midst of lava fields. Here’s Thor’s Shield, the mother of all shield volcanoes, at the peak of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, where it crashes into land underfoot. There’s a little bit of grass here in Thingveillir, but not much.
Lots of wind, though, which makes it a great place to take some of that grass and build a house.
Beautiful, isn’t it. Every farm in the country has ruins of turf houses like this. That’s the thing about Icelandic views: it’s the fact that people live on this land that makes it beautiful. The hard work of warming the land has been done. After all, the story here is one of settlement, not of conquest.